Turkey opposition paper staff resume trial on ‘terror’ charges

People protest outside Istanbul courthouse

ISTANBUL - The controversial trial of staff from Turkey's main opposition newspaper resumed on Monday in a case seen as a test for press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The case, which opened in Istanbul in July, involves 17 current and former writers, cartoonists and executives from Cumhuriyet ("Republic") who are being tried on "terror" charges in a move denounced by supporters as absurd.
For government critics, the case is emblematic of the erosion of freedom following last year's failed coup when Ankara launched a massive crackdown targeting those with alleged links to the putschists as well as opponents.
Prominent commentator Kadri Gursel was defiant when he took the stand, claiming he was on trial because of his "journalistic activities".
"Whatever the verdict, I have an untroubled conscience. And if there is even a little bit of justice left in this period where justice has been trampled upon, I know I will be acquitted," he said.
On July 28, an Istanbul court freed seven of the newspaper's staff after 271 days, including respected cartoonist Musa Kart and Turhan Gunay, editor of the books supplement.
But some of the paper's most prominent staff remain in custody, among them Gursel, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and chief executive Akin Atalay.
Sik has been behind bars for 255 days while the other three have been jailed for 316 days. If convicted, they face varying terms of up to 43 years in jail.
Eight other suspects have also been charged but are not being held in prison.
Sik is the author of an explosive 2011 book entitled "The Imam's Army", which exposed how followers of influential Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen infiltrated the Turkish bureaucracy and built ties with the ruling party.
Once a close ally of Erdogan, Gulen is now in self-imposed exile in the United States and is wanted on charges of ordering the failed July 2016 coup, with Ankara arresting more than 50,000 people on suspicion of links to his movement. He denies the charges.
- 'Shameful trial' -
The second session of hearings is taking place in an underground court next to the high-security Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul where the defendants are being held.
Those on trial are charged with using their position to support the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the ultra-left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), and the Gulen movement.
Ankara has branded all three terror organisations.
The daily's imprisoned accountant, Yusuf Emre Iper, insisted he was innocent of the allegations that he had downloaded the Bylock messaging app which authorities suspect was used by Gulen's supporters to coordinate the coup bid.
Iper told the court he was "sure" he would be released quickly after his detention in April and that he begged the prosecutor "to examine my phone" at the time.
"I ask for my acquittal in this shameful trial," Iper added, denying any links with the Gulen movement.
Commentator Gursel also rejected accusations of links to the Gulen movement based on the receipt of unanswered calls and text messages from alleged putschists.
The judge asked several witnesses including Cumhuriyet journalists and former members of the foundation which owns the daily, about its financial situation and the editorial process: how headlines are chosen and the angle of stories.
Christophe Deloire, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) secretary general, said the journalists "are judged simply because they embody the journalism worthy of its name in Turkey and they do not broadcast the propoganda of the Erdogan regime".
- 'We want justice' -
The secular daily is one of the few voices in the Turkish media to oppose Erdogan, with its embarrassing scoops angering those in the halls of power.
Also on trial, but in absentia after fleeing to Germany, is the paper's former editor-in-chief Can Dundar, who was last year sentenced to five years and 10 months in jail over a front-page story accusing the government of sending weapons to Syria.
In the indictment, the newspaper was accused of an "intense perception operation" targeting both Turkey and Erdogan using the tactics of an "asymmetric war".
On the daily's front page on Monday, the headline read "We want justice" with images of those still imprisoned.
According to the P24 press freedom group, there are 170 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were arrested after the coup in a move that has alarmed Turkey's Western allies.
Turkey ranks 155 out of 180 on the latest RSF world press freedom index.